Making Presidential Debates Count

De Vera, PhD is a Professor of Public Administration, University of the Philippines and a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. This piece was published in the June 15, 2009 edition of the Business World, pages S1/4 and S1/5.

I have never been a great admirer of presidential debates. But after reading through the analysis of political pundits and numerous comments on Facebook regarding the recent ANC leadership forum, I had to take pause and ask – Can we actually make presidential debates count?

While debates among candidates are arguably important in an electoral contest to know their fitness for public office, the political context under which the debate is done, its format and structure, and the media pick-up of the event rarely provides answers on who can best lead the country in the future.

Even in the most celebrated democracy in the world, the much-touted presidential debates rarely act as the turning point in selecting the eventual winner. American political analysts generally agree that only three debates have been pivotal in deciding the outcome of an election – the Lincoln-Douglas debate (1858) which was a “real debate” with each candidate speaking for 1.5 hours (with rebuttals) over seven debates; the Kennedy-Nixon debate (1960) where Nixon’s body language (5 o’clock shadow and shifty eyes) lost him the election; and the Obama-McCain debate (2008) where communication technology (internet, YouTube) expanded voters access and discussion on issues.

Other debates, such as the infamous Gore-Bush debates in 2000, showed how media can be extremely unforgiving on candidates. As the proverbial favorite, Gore was expected to show his superior grasp of facts and issues while Bush the underdog was simply expected to survive the debate. In the end, it was not what the candidate said that counted. Gore’s numerous sighs and exasperated look at the fact-challenged Bush made him look arrogant, while Bush’s sound bites made him look like a viable candidate. The fact-challenged Bush went on to lead the US for eight years.

Rather than convince the uncommitted voter, presidential debates in the US serve to reinforce already existing views on candidates. Both Democrats and Republicans tune in to the debates to strengthen their belief in their respective candidates and mobilize those in their party to support their choice.

If presidential debates in the US have produced mixed results, it has not worked in the Philippines over the past elections. Despite refusing to attend any of the debates, Joseph Estrada won the 1988 elections and Fernando Poe Jr. won (or was cheated in) the 2004 version. I organized a UNICEF-supported presidential debate on children in 1998 that attracted a full house in the U.P. Theater. Sadly, out of the 10 candidates only Juan Ponce Enrile, Fred Lim, and Raul Roco showed up. Many in the audience got easily distracted and soon tuned out of the discussions.

There are three other reasons why presidential debates in the Philippines do not work. For one, unlike in the US where the presidential race is ultimately reduced to a battle between two candidates, we have a multi-party (some would say a “no-political party”) system that always produces numerous candidates. Multiple candidates produce logistical and policy nightmares for debate organizers. It makes it easy for some candidates to excuse themselves since they figure many others will show up, it makes it difficult to squeeze all of them in one stage, and it reduces the time allocated for each aspirant to answer questions.

Second, unless we develop serious political parties with clear policy differences and platforms of government, we can never make presidential debates highlight competing choices nor force candidates to explain at length the details of their programs. Unfortunately, our current presidential aspirants are products of coalitions and political parties that have morphed over the years without clear platforms and programs.

Finally, television (especially cable television) is not the best venue for serious presidential debates. Television debates give a premium on sound bites that rarely educate the viewing public on the policy positions of each candidate. Worse, some television stations pack the event with multiple panels forcing candidates to respond to questions rather than debate each other on their preferred policies or programs.

So how do we make presidential debates in the Philippines count? We can have meaningful presidential debates if we:

1)    Create an independent non-partisan Campaign Commission that will organize the debates and require candidates to participate. The debates should be done on free (not cable) television and cost-shared by major networks and the government.
2)    Bring the debates to the regions to ensure that regional issues are discussed and regional stakeholders can hold side sessions for candidates with their respective constituencies.
3)    In the long term, change the way we elect our presidents by including a run-off or primary-type system to reduce the number of candidates. Less candidates means more time for serious and real questions.
4)    Finally, work towards reforming the political party system to make sure we have candidates who truly represent constituencies, support significant issues and have substantial platforms.

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